Last week I had the privilege of interviewing five experts about the on-going British drama ‘Brexit’. I was in London for the annual conference of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) – a body that represents a £50 billion industry. Members are currently unimpressed with the government’s Brexit strategy – particularly the continual in-fighting. And when your business is all about imports and exports, you can see why leaving the world’s largest trading bloc might be cause for concern.
My first guest was the former head of Waitrose, Lord Price. He’d left his thirty year career with the John Lewis Partnership to become a government Trade Minister. But a few days before the conference, Lord Price quit government. It’s clear he is no fan of Brexit, and thinks that those who voted for it will be left disappointed. But having travelled the globe for 15 months as trade minister, he is certain the UK will eventually thrive. It’s just the time it will take to get to that point that’s the problem. Here’s the Guardian’s take on our interview.
I must also add what a delightful man Lord Price is. He’s written a book called ‘Fairness for All’ in which he demands a fairer kind of capitalism and seeks to explain why Brexit happened and Trump was elected. He also hammers home the importance of happiness at work, and says that’s the key to increasing productivity and therefore profits. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and feel a few bosses might also benefit!
Next up was Tim Martin, the millionaire founder of the British pub chain, Wetherspoon. Mr Martin is an ardent Brexiteer and contrary to the views of most of his audience, is in no doubt that the UK’s vote to leave the EU will be good for Britain. Although he had 200,000 pro-Brexit beer mats printed in the run up to the EU referendum, he is by no means anti migration. Given that one in 10 of his own staff comes from outside the UK, he knows how hard it can be to find workers. What Mr Martin says he feels passionately about is democracy and reclaiming ‘British sovereignty’. He dislikes the European Union to such an extent that he doesn’t think it matters whether or not the UK and EU secure a Free Trade Agreement post Brexit. (And yes, I did point out that would mean wine from the EU becoming more expensive, not to mention non-tariff barriers like customs delays.)
You can imagine the response that got from my next two guests, both of whom have worked in Brussels. Until 2015, Sir Simon Fraser was head of the British Foreign Office and is now managing partner of the business advisory, Flint Global. He was joined by the international lawyer, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez who advises clients on EU trade law policy and Brexit. Both are convinced that the UK will suffer economically post Brexit and believe the country must have in place some kind of transition period to soften the blow. Of course Tim Martin disagreed with almost everything they said. It made for a challenging, interesting and at times, entertaining discussion. It’s a serious and extremely complex subject. But at least afterwards we could enjoy a glass of (English) wine or a (British) gin and tonic.